An essay a week meant to explain why a song is beautiful. Please press play on the song, wait for the ad to finish if there is one, and read the essay during the entire length of the song.
Crickets. So many of them. New Jersey crickets, which are even more bold than west coast crickets. When crickets chirp, they are rubbing their wings together, the edges of which have jagged teeth like a comb. They aren’t rubbing their legs, like you believed in fifth grade, when James would pretend he was a cricket at camp and rub his legs together and make a ridiculous high-pitched sound with his mouth.
Then comes a shaker, setting a tempo against the wave. When there are a lot of crickets the chirping is like a wave, and it’s hard to locate any one individual, which is good for not being eaten, which is bad for a mate finding you. Then the guitars come in.
The closest a guitar can be to a voice is when it is played with a slide. Then it is freed from its frets. When I was 18 and just starting to play music I was auditioning bass players. I met with one at his house, and he pulled out a fretless bass. He half joked, “I don’t want anyone telling me where a note is supposed to be.” I felt so ashamed. I thought notes were laid out for you like pieces of birthday cake, and asking for a different size would be rude. Then we played one of my songs and though he was educated and I was not, he just played too many notes, and I didn’t know how to tell him to stop. It made me think that there is a time when you can know too much and it can prevent you from just leaving space.
The space is what makes this song vital on warm nights. There is space in which to live. There is space in which to love. It is the sound of foreplay, moving slow so as not to tear a hole in the moment, as if a misplaced breath or a clearing of the throat would reset everything back to zero.
I sat with Ella once in my car. We were at the end of a date and in the middle of a conversation as I pulled up to her house. Not wanting to upset anything while she was talking, I kept my foot on the brake. After a few minutes my leg muscle was shaking under the stress of holding down the pedal. I knew that when I let go, the car would lurch a little and possibly upset the moment. But meanwhile all my focus was devoted to my calf muscle which was burning. I didn’t want to let go of that moment, thinking that the transition would ruin everything. Eventually I let go and the car lurched a little. She didn’t even interrupt what she was saying. It turned out she just wasn’t all that great at listening.
The green arrow is an exit sign. This building is full of smoke. Everything is silent except for the chirping of smoke alarms, pinging off each other out of time. You have to keep low to the floor because smoke is light and it rises to the ceiling. It is hot and uncomfortable in the building, but there is a moment when a draft of cool air hits your face and you pause with your stomach resting on the cheap carpet. You enjoy the comfort, not thinking that this could be the end, not wondering how you will get out, just appreciating the cool on your skin, something you weren’t able to appreciate earlier that day.
I sat with Melissa in her convertible at two in the morning and we listened to this song. She showed me the tan line where her wedding ring had been. I asked if I could kiss her and she said no. I didn’t know she had already found another. I felt sorry for myself for a second, but the vodka allowed me to recover quickly. “Just wait for the drums to come in,” I said. “The drummer is just sitting there this whole time. Just wait.” I held out my hands, as though I were holding mallets, just waiting.
I sat with Lisa on the back porch of the Emerson house and listened to this song on repeat. I had just been visited by a ghost on a bicycle, one who haunted my dreams, one who I momentarily had forgotten. She was with a team of others, chatting in the midnight air, riding down side streets, and she just happened to turn down the street I was on and yell out to me, “Nick Jainaaaaa….” Like it was so simple to be easy and free in the night air, just biking from one place to the next. It shook me from my pleasant day and only then did I remember what I had lost. She didn’t even stop, she just kept riding. Lisa and I listened to this song on a couch on the back porch. We listened to the crickets, the slide guitars. “Just wait for the drums to come in,” I said.
The next day we walked through the Denver Museum of Art, through a room all covered in red. Every table and carpet and lamp was the same shade of red, and I walked slowly, as though birds were parting for my every step. I looked for the green arrow, but everything was red. I shared one earbud with Lisa and she had to match her steps with mine to keep the earbud from falling out. “This is how to experience this room,” I said. We stepped slowly in synch with each other, like we were exploring Mars, trying not to crush the soil, allowing our oxygen line to tease out and not tangle on our feet. “Wait for the drums,” I said. “Don’t lose hope. They’ll come.” Near the exit was a room where kids could try on outfits from different historical eras. We put on Mongol costumes and pretended to strangle each other.
In the center of one room in the museum was a sculpture by Deborah Butterfield made of old car parts, bent into the shape of a horse with its head bowed. I looked at the placard describing the work and there was a quote from the artist. “Working with junk is a way of recognizing a quality of line and appropriating it to my sculpture,” it said. I looked around for a security guard and ran my hand across the horse’s neck, a long smooth red fender from a Chevy pickup truck. I pretended I was calming the rattled beast during a thunderstorm. I never would’ve cared to touch the metal when it was an automobile, but now that it was twisted into a pastoral animal, I had to feel the quality of the line.
When I stayed with Kevin on the Upper West Side he would wake up at seven in the morning and put on a recording of the sound of a Porsche engine revving and just listen to that for ten minutes while he drank his coffee. “What is it that you like so much about cars?” I asked one day, rubbing my eyes. “You don’t even get the visceral thrill of moving through space. You’re just listeneing to the sound of the engine. I can’t relate to that at all.” He thought for a second and then said, “I like the violence of machines.” I puzzled over that for the rest of the day.
We walked through MoMA and saw a painting by Robert Motherwell from the New York School. It was just a few simple lines on an otherwise blank canvas. In the description I read that he created it when he had one canvas resting up against the other, and he liked the space that it created, so he just outlined the shape it made. The kind of artistic statement that upsets people, who turn to their wives and say, “Well I could do THAT.” As though art were a land grab, that the important thing was to get there first, as though nobody stopped anymore to just admire the shape a canvas makes when it leans against another.
The crickets keep chirping like the squealing brakes of a train. Amazing how thousands of pounds of steel can sound like a tiny insect. Just put the right frame around something and stand the right distance away and you can find the resonance it has with everything else. Cricket chirps probably sound like many other things too. Maybe supernovas. Maybe diamonds forming. Just have patience.
Think of the patience of the drummer. She has waited so long to enter. Four and a half minutes. The song is almost over by now. But it charges the air to know that there is a drummer sitting in the room, waiting to play. Her patience is breathtaking. She has been the one swelling the cymbals with mallets this whole time. You thought that was the sound of the night, that it was the resonance of the crickets. The sound of a song with no drums is more powerful when you realize a drummer has been there all along, choosing not to play. The urge to play when it is not needed is a reaction to those people who say, “Well I could do THAT.” We don’t need to worry about those people.
Now she is here, finally, filling in the groove, and you wonder how the song ever moved forward without drums. Now there is a way out of the burning building. A whole wall just opened up onto a garden and you can walk right out to it. Suddenly there is a big green arrow flashing in the all-red room. You don’t have to step so delicately anymore. If you are in a moment where you can kiss someone, this is where it should happen, provided they are not already taken. If they are taken, you can pretend to play the drums with your hands. This moment of release will always be here for you, while people to kiss may not.
Crickets are by far the oldest instrument on this recording. For millions of years they were the only music of the night, until we invented shakers and guitars and could join them. They are still the best shorthand way to communicate that it is night time. Fade in. The countryside. Crickets are chirping. Headlights splash against the tree trunks.
The slide guitars are bouncing off the walls now. It’s a shame it took so long to realize that art museums are better when you walk really slowly and listen to one song over and over again. What was the hurry before, to see everything? Well, good thing you realize it now and still have so long to live.
The guitars finish up their melodies and the drums keep right on, as if to say, “Sorry I got to the party so late. I’m going to stay here for a while, even after everyone has left. You guys have any movies we can watch? I don’t feel tired at all.”
Nick Jaina is a writer and musician who splits his time between New Orleans, Portland, and New York. His new non-fiction book Get It While You Can is out now on Perfect Day Publishing. www.nickjaina.com
Photo: Gill Landry